Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012 | 2 a.m.
When the Veterans Affairs Medical Center opened last month in North Las Vegas, it was hailed by local and national leaders as a major step forward for delivering healthcare in the valley.
The $600 million, 1-million-square-foot building, which is stocked with state-of-the-art technology and provides a centralized location for a variety of specialized clinics, is expected to improve the quality of care for veterans and will allow the VA to increase the number of Southern Nevada patients it serves by a third to 60,000.
The only problem: There aren’t enough doctors on staff to handle the influx of new patients.
A doctor shortage has long been plagued Nevada, which consistently ranks near the bottom nationally in doctor-to-patient ratios. In 2011, the most recent figures available, Nevada had 171 physicians for every 100,000 of its residents.
With affordable housing, good weather and a medical industry that’s easier to break into than in older, more-established cities, Las Vegas is an attractive option for many doctors.
But a lack of residency and fellowship programs – especially in specialty areas like gastroenterology and head and neck surgery – makes it difficult to train enough doctors in state to meet the demand, forcing hospitals to look out-of-state when recruiting physicians.
At the VA Medical Center, administrators have been on a furious hiring spree, adding 45 physicians to its current staff of 100, drawing from its internal network of medical centers across the country while also recruiting doctors from out of state and from other local clinics. The center still needs to add about 15 physicians to reach full capacity, and administrators are confident they will reach their mark.
“The first selling point is the hospital itself. This idea of a magnificent, brand-new medical center attracts people,” said Dr. Ramu Komanduri, the VA Medical Center of Southern Nevada’s chief of staff. “Often (doctors) have a perception that Vegas is one type of town where you go for entertainment, that’s it’s not the kind of place you settle down. But we have good parks, the school system. We try to highlight some of those aspects and paint a realistic picture. Once they hear about the things they don’t see in the media, they’re more willing to consider relocation to this area.”
The Nevada State Board of Medical Examiners reports there were 3,027 licensed physicians in Clark County in 2011, an increase of 21 physicians from the previous year.
With the Affordable Care Act expected to bring insurance to millions of people and large-scale healthcare projects like Union Village looming on the horizon, the need for more doctors in Nevada will only increase.
“Nevada has the lowest ratio of providers to patients in the country. There’s plenty of room for growth. The key thing is to ensure that where we grow fills a need,” said Brian Brannman, CEO of University Medical Center. “We have a huge need in the community for primary care, for hepatologists. We need to fill in some of those gaps.”
Addressing that shortage will mean expanding residency and fellowship opportunities within the state, and finding better ways to organize doctors that are already here to deliver the most efficient care, medical leaders say.
“We are a microcosm for a much larger issue. The single limiting factor for growing the physician pipeline everywhere in response to healthcare reform and state needs is residency and fellowship positions,” said Thomas Schwenk, dean of the University of Nevada Medical School. “Those are funded and capped by Medicare, with limitations to how many a hospital can have. … The biggest issue is how do we restructure the funding. Who would put more in? Should it be the states? Should it be private insurance?”
Schwenk said enrollment was up at the University of Nevada Medical School and at medical schools around the country. He estimated that 300 physicians in Las Vegas were graduates of the state’s medical school – about 10 percent of its total alumni – but with limited fellowship and residency options in state, many doctors have to look elsewhere to get the training they need.
“We’re not really changing the number of physicians and the types of physician positions available,” Schwenk said.
The medical school recently received approval for 71 new residency slots in primary care and general surgery – 50 of them at University Medical Center – two areas with the most pressing needs, Schwenk said. But more positions in a range of specialties are needed.
Statistics show doctors are more likely to stay in the area where they completed their residencies and fellowships, Brannman said, and doctors leaving Nevada for further training might not return to practice medicine here.
Dr. Aimee Fleury was one of those who left the state. A Montana native, Fleury graduated from University of Nevada Medical School in 2005, before moving to the East Coast for a fellowship at Johns Hopkins University.
But Fleury returned earlier this summer to Las Vegas to complete her residency. She took a job at the Women’s Cancer Center of Nevada, where she specializes in gynecological oncology.
“Having worked here before with the Women’s Cancer Center, it was pretty much always in the plan to come back. It’s really a world-class practice,” she said. “It was an attractive place to come work, but also a city I find very easy to live in.”
Doctors choose where to open their practices for a variety of personal and professional reasons, Fleury said.
Las Vegas offers many “a climate of opportunity to build your practice,” she said, because of the lower number of doctors.
The valley’s ability to recruit doctors relies foremost on the area’s ability to offer a quality work environment and modern facilities, Brannman said.
“You want to establish a competitive salary range … you want to provide an attractive environment with a broad mix of physicians,” he said. “Doctors want top-notch peers, clinically challenging patients.”
Solving the state’s doctor shortage will require building an attractive medical industry for out-of -state doctors while improving education opportunities inside the state, he said.
“The next step is to develop an advanced level of training where we’re getting the cardiologists, the gastroenterologists that we need in the community, that will grow here and stay here.”